Constructing Community: Urban Governance, Development, and Inequality in Boston
Jeremy R. Levine
Princeton University Press, $27.95 (paper)

A Reckoning in Boston
directed by James Rutenbeck
Lost Nation Pictures and Independent Lens

In a recent study of housing trends in London, political scientists Winston Chou and Rafaela Dancygier found that “across advanced economies, affordable housing shortages are pushing low-income voters out of cities. Left governments frequently exacerbate these shortages. . . . The displaced make room for richer voters whom politicians believe will also support Labour.” In other words, there is no downside, politically, for elected officials when neighborhoods gentrify.

Cities continue to bleed and shrink. Yet progressive institutions and elected officials seem to think there are few downsides to gentrification.

The same often holds for cities in the United States: poorer voters who tend to vote Democratic—but not unanimously and sometimes with greater demands for services—are, through gentrification, being replaced by more prosperous, lower-maintenance, Democratic-leaning voters. A 2016 New York Times article described this dynamic in San Francisco: “The decline has been steady and noticeable. One in seven residents was black in 1970. Today, it is nearly one of 20, with most of the city’s 46,000 blacks living in public housing.” Many studies, like one by H. Gibbs Knotts and Moshe Haspel in the Social Science Quarterly, have found that “gentrification decreases turnout among longstanding residents.”

But it was two business cronies of a former Chicago mayor who laid this out to me bluntly one night in 2009 over dinner. I am a long-time organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), and I was describing the accelerating exodus of Black families from the west and south sides of Chicago, and how that was crippling communities and creating desperately violent struggles for turf and control. Finally one of them said: “What’s wrong with that? It just means the people who replace them will have more money. That’s what this city needs.” What he did not understand was that the pool of wealthier replacements was finite, and the city as a whole would continue to bleed and shrink. From a high of 3.62 million residents in 1950, Chicago now counts 2.69 million. Nearly a million people have left, a continuing decline driven in recent decades by the flood of Black Chicagoans out of the city.

Despite this, many “progressive” institutions—including the robust and sprawling Community Development Corporation (CDC) industry—seem to think there are few short-term downsides to gentrification. Sparked in the 1960s, when Senator Robert F. Kennedy saw the potential for neighborhood revitalization in Brooklyn’s Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood, CDCs initially focused on physical development, renovating and constructing affordable housing. Over the decades they expanded to business development, job training and placement, community engagement and planning, and daycare and other social services. One of the pioneers in this field, Paul Grogan, described how CDCs grew:

Community developers crafted a series of tools to link national pools of capital with local investment opportunities. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit created a channel for private investment in low-income housing projects. The New Markets Tax Credit created a vehicle for private investment in businesses, daycare centers, charter schools, and other community facilities. . . . This effort has been wildly successful.

It is true that many CDCs have filled the space left by the federal government’s withdrawal from any commitment to urban regeneration, and the hefty fees from tax credit deals support an ecosystem of well-staffed corporations. Private foundations, comfortable with this dynamic, pour increasingly large amounts of money into service organizations. Conferences attract scores of finance, real estate, and nonprofit executives; academics; philanthropists; and political and appointed officials to celebrate successes and recognize each other. But those inhabiting the realities of gentrifying U.S. cities and neighborhoods are not keen to join these celebrations.

Two recent works about Boston—the book Constructing Community: Urban Governance, Development, and Inequality in Boston by Jeremy R. Levine and the documentary film A Reckoning in Boston by James Rutenbeck—help explain why both politicians and the community development industry often fail poor urban residents. These works are about as unlike in structure, approach, and tone as two works about the same communities can be. Yet, when looked at together, they complement one another in surprising ways.

Levine concentrates on the process of community development in what is sometimes referred to (mainly by development wonks) as the Fairmount Corridor, a large swath of the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park named after the woefully inadequate Fairmount Line of the commuter rail, which just barely connects the area to downtown. The corridor is home to more than 88,000 residents—61 percent of whom are Black, 21 percent Latino, 9 percent white, and 1 percent Asian. The lives and futures of these residents are subject to a complex patchwork of redevelopment efforts involving scores of foundation heads, community development executives, for-profit developers, governmental officials, nonprofit organizers, elected as well as would-be politicians, academic researchers, community residents, and more. In his introduction, Levine notes that “nearly everyone” in his book was resisting gentrification and “doing a different kind of urban renewal.” Though he adds that “the extent to which they succeeded is very much up for debate,” it’s a debate he curiously opts not to pursue.

Instead, Levine states very clearly what he is willing to pursue. He argues that the growing number of private foundations and intermediaries has “fundamentally altered local democracy,” contending that the decline in public funding and loss of influence by local elected officials have made it harder for residents to play a meaningful role. He then argues that, while the players now are more diverse and vary greatly from those who made decisions in the past, “both the lack of public transparency and limited empowerment of urban residents remain.”

The community development industry is eager to toast its successes, but those inhabiting the realities of gentrifying cities are not keen to join these celebrations.

So far so good. The first chapter describes how the period of urban renewal and community block grants from 1949 to the mid-1960s relocated thousands of poor families, decimated existing communities, and then failed to build new housing of quality and at scale. This phase was dismantled and replaced piece by piece.

First, local communities sought a greater role in community development. Then, machine mayors, who resented the independence of local activists, pressured the federal government to give them more control over funding sources. This was followed by dramatic declines in federal support, beginning in the Reagan years, and the 1986 passage of the Low Income Tax Credit legislation that became the dominant tool of a vast network of nonprofits, developers, academic and technical consultants, financial intermediaries, and others.

This chapter should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand how community development evolved in this country. Taken alone, it would be an invaluable contribution to understanding why certain forms of housing—such as higher density and rental—are built while other forms—such as lower density, owner-occupied single and two-family homes—are less likely to be built. Levine is at his best when describing the financial and policy dynamics on the national stage and, in later chapters, in Boston, where many players negotiated the opportunities for housing preservation and development in the Fairmount Corridor.

But Levine also makes some puzzling assumptions.

I write this as a person with more than forty years of experience in citizens’ organizing and affordable housing development, primarily in New York and Chicago, but also in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Until two years ago, I served as codirector of the IAF, founded by Saul Alinsky, and today work there as a senior advisor.

One of our affiliates, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), was founded more than twenty years ago and made a signature impact in the area of health reform in coalition with other Massachusetts groups. It’s significant to note that an early effort by GBIO to build affordable housing in Boston was unsuccessful. The success of our work in East Brooklyn and the South Bronx convinced us that we could easily replicate that impact in Boston and other cities, without the kind of in-depth organizing and base-building that enabled those leaders to convince a skeptical New York Mayor Ed Koch and resistant affordable housing establishment. More recently, though, GBIO has worked effectively on criminal justice reform issues. I say all this because my reflections on Levine’s assumptions are based on my own experience in other cities, not on specific knowledge about Boston. Broader experience can be useful, and I wish Levine had ranged around a bit more than he did.

While the analysis and historical background in Constructing Community are compelling, many of the underlying assumptions and academic framing are puzzling. I do credit Levine, though, for transparently declaring his assumptions:

Despite disconnected intellectual histories, scholarship from sociology, political science, urban planning, nonprofit studies, public administration, and geography nevertheless shares a set of core empirical observations: A wide range of organizations and institutions make and implement the policies that matter for city residents. Horizontal collaboration replaced top-down hierarchical authority. Boundaries separating the public, for-profit, and nonprofit sectors blurred to the point of imperceptibility. In theory, everyone is seen as a potential partner, not an adversary, and the goal is consensus, not political conflict. In short, urban policy is no longer exclusively a government affair, but more accurately described as urban governance.

Let me take these core empirical observations—so widely shared within academia—one at a time.

First, he states that “a wide range of organizations and institutions make and implement the policies that matter for city residents.” Well, yes, but when wasn’t this true? In the 1950s and ’60s, in my hometown of Chicago and many other cities, this “wide range” included elected and appointed officials, major real estate and construction companies, organized labor, slum landlords, mortgage bankers, organized crime, and religious institutions.

The average white family in Boston has $247,500 in wealth; the average Black family has $8.

Fifteen years ago our Chicago organization was invited to apply to a major foundation in the aftermath of the financial crisis, as the foreclosure numbers soared. The outgoing president of the foundation had urged us to apply; he was disappointed by the lack of impact their funding for intermediaries and community development groups had delivered, and he had heard of our impact in East Brooklyn and the South Bronx. Initially, our application was warmly received. Then, on the day of the board vote, a program officer called me and asked if our work would reflect negatively on the mayor and his administration. I said: “That’s not our goal. But if you are asking me to guarantee that it will not, we can’t do that.” They did not approve the grant. Unsurprisingly, a former top assistant to the mayor was a key person in that foundation. Other assistants worked for intermediaries in the community development system. Still others moved in and out of city and state housing agencies. Though there were different organizations and institutions involved in community development decision-making in Chicago, City Hall ultimately had the final say in all funding decisions.

I haven’t seen any significant change in the level of democratic participation by the average citizen, much less the kind of fundamental alteration that Levine believes has occurred. If there has been any fundamental difference, it owes little to the mixing of public sector, private sector, and nonprofit bureaucracies in a given city or region. In the four neighborhoods Levine studied, he charted nine separate development corporations and self-described community organizations with a combined staff of approximately 175 individuals and a combined yearly budget of about $12 million. All this in an area of just under 90,000 residents. I have no doubt that these are credible and respected service organizations with long histories, probably led by smart and committed directors. But something clearly is missing: nonpartisan, independent organizing led by and with the most marginalized community members and leaders.

Second, Levine contends that “horizontal collaboration replaced top-down hierarchical authority.” In the world as it should be—and perhaps in the academic universe or the foundation conference culture—maybe this is the case. But in the world as it is—in Chicago, New York, and many other places—this is not an accurate portrayal. While there is a more sophisticated and well-financed process for “engaging” or “listening” to different groups in a community, which Levine carefully documents and criticizes, power is still power. And those with power continue to act in their own interests just as aggressively as they always have done. A Boston official told me recently: “The market builders are just devouring whatever sites and properties are left in the city. There’s some money for the very poor. There’s little or nothing for the working class.” Hence the growing inequality, which is already extreme and only getting worse.

Third: “Boundaries separating the public, for-profit, nonprofit sectors blurred to the point of imperceptibility.” This is not the case. Our best organizations teach and practice the third sector role while in constant interaction with the public and private sectors. These leaders understand who they are and where they stand. They firmly defend and promote the interests and values of their communities and congregations, while collaborating with, and at times confronting, power players in the other two sectors. Ask any major developer or real estate investor if her vision is blurred, and she will laugh in your face. Developers and lenders have laser vision on sites and subsidies, developments ripe for purchase and profit through gentrification.

Something clearly is missing: nonpartisan organizing led by the most marginalized community members.

Finally, Levine writes, “In theory, everyone is seen as a potential partner, not an adversary, and the goal is consensus, not political conflict.” In recent years, the academic world has peddled this myth, but every major gain in our organizing has come about only after a period of conflict, sometimes bitter and sustained. The goal of this conflict is never consensus, but a reaction, a meaningful public relationship, and a resolution—one never without opposition. The goal is to secure sites for more affordable, owner-occupied homes; the goal is more equity for Black and Hispanic families and individuals; the goal is concrete, tangible, constructive change led and won by the leaders and residents who organize and persist in their efforts. So, no. Everyone is not seen as a potential partner. Consensus is not the goal. We don’t look for consensus in these kinds of tough fights; we look for tangible progress. Just as power is still power, self-interest is still self-interest.

We should examine how the entire academic community can conspire to ignore these fundamental realities of public life. This kind of wishful thinking strips those in marginalized communities of many of the tools needed to defend and promote their own interests and values. It simultaneously allows the entities that profit from large-scale rental development, rather than from single-family home construction—such as builders, trade unions, lenders, architects, and planners—off the hook. As one major builder told me: “None of us want to build smaller, single-family affordable homes. Why should we, when we can make so much more building rental housing—whether it’s market or low-income?”

So, what’s really going on in Boston and cities around the world?

Rutenbeck’s film provides another perspective and a better answer to this important question. His camera follows two individuals—Kafi Dixon and Carl Chandler—who struggle against forces that often frustrate their efforts to improve their lives and their neighborhoods. But a third impersonal presence looms in the film—the sights and sounds of market builders systematically absorbing vacant sites and buying and converting vulnerable affordable-housing developments. While gentrification is a persistent absence in Levine’s book, it is a brooding presence in this film.

The goal is more equity for Black and Hispanic families; the goal is not consensus.

Dixon is a bus driver by day who struggles unsuccessfully to create a community garden on several sites. Chandler is disabled, living on a limited pension, and serving as the primary caregiver of his adult daughter’s son. They both face the threat—and reality, in Dixon’s case—of eviction. The film compellingly weaves together a record of their challenges, their commitment to deepening their education in night classes on history and social change, and their support for their families and close friends. It would have been even more compelling, and somewhat shorter, if the filmmaker had not inserted so many quotes from Socrates and several of his own personal reactions to the plight of his subjects, who are formidable and dignified.

Rutenbeck emphasizes a contrast early on that is meant to shock the viewer—and in my case, at least, it did: the average white family in Boston has $247,500 in wealth; the average Black family has $8. Since approximately half of the wealth of all but the upper-middle and upper classes comes from equity in a primary residence, this means that African Americans in Boston own very little. How could this happen in a city and commonwealth considered so progressive and with so many fighting against inequity and injustice?

The film documents the distance between its main characters and the sympathetic but often unresponsive city administrators they encounter. But there is little to no interaction with the agents of community development that Levine discusses. That absence speaks volumes.

So, the fact remains: while things are going well for a large group of middle- and upper-middle-class managers, they are going terribly for the Carl Chandlers and Kafi Dixons of the world.

The documentary ends with some good news for those two individuals, at least. Dixon becomes a homeowner, while still struggling to get the city to support her vision of a community garden. Chandler begins taking courses at Harvard Extension School, perhaps on his way to enrollment as a full-time student. But the overall impression is of two estimable individuals who don’t seem to be part of supportive third-sector institutions—congregations, associations, well-grounded labor locals—that could defend their interests against an array of established forces or provide them with strategies and programs that could benefit them and their communities.

There is little sign in the film of the agents of community development that Levine discusses. That absence speaks volumes.

The film’s protagonists reminded me of two wonderful leaders, Carmelia Goffe and Irving Domenech, whom I first met in East Brooklyn in late 1980s and with whom I worked until each passed away. Like Dixon and Chandler, they had already lived hard lives, but they found one another, and scores and then hundreds of other similar leaders; they brought their small congregations together and built an independent power organization called East Brooklyn Congregations; they battled city and state politicians and self-dealing local development entities that were little more than fronts for local politicians; they found powerful allies and aligned them with their vision; and they designed and implemented approaches that gave them full ownership of the future of their communities.

As I watched Dixon and Chandler, I hoped that they would find one another and others like them, not just in their night classes, but in the broader public arena. Together, they could find an existing organization or start a new one that would recognize their talent and drive. Until they do, those with $8 in wealth in Boston and cities like Boston will continue to face challenges that show no sign of lessening anytime soon.